Posted on: May 6, 2021 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

By Valerie Olivares, JRN 111 Student

Small talk. Elevator rides. Dinner invitations. What used to feel completely normal in an average day has turned into a source of stress and anxiety.

As we’re entering year two of the pandemic, we have gotten out of practice with social interaction. We may be social animals, but as with any other skill, if we don’t use it, we lose it.

“Part of it has to do with the way our brains have evolved,” explains Moraine psychology professor Amy Williamson. “When we have fewer social connections, the brain’s emotion processing center actually can get smaller over time.”

Post-pandemic conversations have been on the forefront of many people’s minds. Now that almost 50 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, reentering society seems within our reach. Finally, we’ll be able to go back to normal.

But what exactly is “normal”?

“The reality is we don’t know what ‘normal’ is anymore,” said Yesenia Avalos, sociology professor at Moraine Valley. “When we think about the limited interaction we’re having, that leaves us to our own thinking, our own influences.”

For some of us, dwelling on our own thoughts has hurt us more than helped. 

According to the Pew Research Center, one third of U.S. adults are experiencing high levels of psychological distress. Young adults 18-29 are of particular concern, with 32 percent of them reporting high levels of distress, compared with only 21 percent of older adults.

“Generally speaking, that age group is finding themselves,” said Avalos, “They’re either in college, working their first job or they are finding their way and this is their first real transition into adulthood.”

That transition is even harder these days as the pandemic has deprived young adults of many chances to interact with peers, mentors, and potential employers who might help shape their paths forward.

Kelly Calcagno is one college nursing student that’s felt the effects of isolation firsthand. Heading back to class after a year-long hiatus was nerve-wracking.

“There was definitely a change,” she said. “After being in isolation for so long, I knew a few people who did not want to come back. I don’t blame them. At first I was nervous too.”

Calcagno said before the pandemic hit, she used to talk to a lot of people.

“After COVID, I barely talk to anyone else because during all that time I just focused the time I did have on school and a few friends,” she said. “I just don’t talk to anyone else anymore. It’s kind of like those little friendships or acquaintances that I had are kind of lost.”

But not to fear! We can learn to become social again. A transition back into society is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it has to be scary.  Reintegration can come smoothly if we keep a few things in mind.

Sit with the discomfort

Things will be different. It’s OK to think, “This is weird.”  Odds are you’re probably not the only one feeling that way. Recognize the discomfort so it’s easier to move past it.

Practice, practice, practice

“The more you do the less you’ll find yourself feeling that amount of discomfort,” said Williamson.

Recognize you’re not alone

“Everybody’s feeling hesitant, afraid, awkward, unsure of how to proceed,” Williamson said. “Nobody knows all the answers right now and so, I think doing what you can with where you’re at to become as comfortable as you can in this new normal that we have is important.”

With anxiety creeping up at every corner, staying grounded is essential. Training ourselves for our new normal will be the real challenge when reentering the social scene.

“We’re going to have to retrain ourselves in some way to be with other people again,” said Williamson. “For your own health, it’s really important to get back out there with people even if it’s just going to the grocery store and talking to a grocery clerk. Even some of those small interactions that seem irrelevant are helpful.”

And most of all, have patience

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Williamson says. “This is hard for everybody. Give it the little bit you can do, give yourself credit for that, and then try again tomorrow.”